By the time a week’s worth of dust settled, 29 players suited up for Class 6A Shawnee Mission South on Friday night, in its game at Leavenworth.
Leavenworth won the game 38-17, but there has been more going for the SM South Raiders than Friday’s game itself. It was SM South’s first football game since eight seniors left the program between last Friday and Tuesday. Following a loss to Winnetonka last Thursday, head coach Brett Oberzan kicked three senior players off the team. Five other seniors quit the team a few days later, citing dissatisfaction with how the situation had been handled and a frustration with Oberzan’s program.
Player-coach conflict has become a topic that seemingly every nearby football fan has an opinion on: What’s the line between sticking by your team, and standing up for what you believe in? When is it socially acceptable to turn your pads in and walk out of a season?
The slashing of SM South’s roster has brought out visceral opinions on both sides. On one end, you have social media warriors calling the departing SM South players “quitters.” You have those who believe in authority, that a coach’s word is law, and that players should stick with something they started.
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“I believe in my heart that all kids that really have the love for the game, no matter what it is they’re playing, will stick to something through thick and thin, especially if they’re playing a sport that they’re passionate about,” said Shawnee Mission East athletic director Debbie Katzfey. “I think that coaches have high standards, which is exactly what we need in society today.”
On the other side, you have those who believe in standing by your friends if you think they’ve been wronged, and people who think life is too short to keep doing something that makes you unhappy.
“I think they’re just frustrated with the coach, and the other seniors stood behind their team,” said Andy Engelhart, a Mill Valley fan. “If I was a senior, I would do the same thing. If you kick someone off the team, I’m going with them and standing up to the coach.”
In the middle of all the noise is a group of seniors who stood by their convictions, and a Shawnee Mission South coaching staff and team who stood by theirs.
The situation at SM South has inspired conversations among some families about how to handle conflict between high school athletes and coaches. It’s a philosophical question made especially clear by the majority of a senior class departing SM South’s football program.
“You play a team sport; you’re supposed to support each other and support your coaches,” said Leavenworth fan Keith Walker, who has two daughters playing high school sports.
“I’m not going to jump and be on my kid’s side, because it could be my kid’s fault,” said Rosalia Malaki on potential tension between players and coaches. Her son, Etena Tuivaiti, plays football for Leavenworth. “I would listen to my child and then I would go to the school and talk to the coach and bring everybody (together), just to make sense of it and understand what is going on.”
For as long as there has been football, there has been disagreement — differing opinions on snap counts, discipline, offensive philosophies, and which dance moves constitute unsportsmanlike conduct.
Football is a cluster of inherently combustible pieces. At SM South, tension escalated to turmoil.
But some believe that the situation has been an opportunity to teach a life lesson — a lesson that extends to each side of the conflict.
“This will be character-building for them,” said Noel Turla, whose son, Ben, is a current sophomore on the Shawnee Mission South team. “It’s kind of like they have no choice — they have to move on. Just look forward.”